Acquiring minds turn to FAI's Online U.

Acquiring minds turn to FAI's Online U.

Procurement officers take tuition-free courses to learn the essence of contracting

By Richard W. Walker

GCN Staff

It's like many institutions of higher learning.

Students check in, register, get a campus map, go to the administration building and sign up for classes. But the differences here are that this campus is virtual, the buildings are subdirectories and the cyberstudents are government procurement specialists.



The institution is the Federal Acquisition Institute's Online University, which offers courses for contracting officer representatives'those who perform procurement tasks in addition to their regular jobs'and contracting specialists, who are full-time procurement officers.

'We see [the online university] as a way to handle the vast majority of the training requirements,' said Gayle Messick, program manager for FAI Online University. 'As agencies' training budgets are decreased, we're trying to find ways to provide alternatives and still get people trained in [procurement procedures].'

Online U., part of the General Services Administration, opened its portals two years ago. About 17,000 procurement officers are enrolled. The largest group'about 3,000'comes from the Army, Messick said.

In with a browser

Enrollment is open to all government procurement officials, whether they're federal, state or local. Students pay no tuition.

Students need only a Web browser, preferably Netscape Navigator 4.0 or Internet Explorer 4.0, to take classes.

'If you have a browser, you can do everything,' Messick said. 'Everything we do is browser-related, including our multimedia tutorial. There are no plug-ins.'

Online U. students proceed at their own pace. The courses are always there, a mouse click away.

When they feel they have mastered any given segment of a course, students can take a test, receive certification and print out the certificate.

The university offers four courses: contracting orientation, market research for acquisition officers, acquisition planning for contract specialists and a contracting officer representative (COR) mentor course.

The most extensive course is for CORs, providing instruction for the 18 specific duties that can be assigned to a COR. Those duties include monitoring a contractor's performance, inspecting and accepting a contract, documenting performance, determining modifications to a contract, and closing out a contract.

Students are given several elements for each duty, including an executive summary, a procedure map that delineates the steps involved in performing a duty, a multimedia tutorial, agency-specific exercises and library items such as regulations, samples, questions and answers.

COR students receive a certificate when they have successfully mastered each duty.

'A couple of agencies make people do only five or six duties because that's all that are relevant' their procurement processes,' Messick said. 'Others make them do all 18.'

To date, Online U. has awarded more than 50,000 certificates for COR training, Messick said.

The COR course is primarily presented as a structured path toward certification, taking about 24 hours to complete all 18 duties. But it also is accessible through unstructured, ad hoc queries of the database.

Click: the library

FAI Online also is developing a gateway for COR students. 'Instead of having to revisit the online university to get your hands on samples or procedures, you'll be able to have an icon on your desktop,' Messick said. 'You just click on that when you have an issue or you want to look something up.'

Another course, contracting orientation, is an introductory class for anyone who needs to know the basic statutes and regulations that govern the procurement process, and the standards of conduct and ethics that apply to participants in the process.

Market research for acquisition officers focuses on six duties relating to collecting, analyzing and maintaining information in the marketplace.

Acquisition planning for contract specialists, which takes about six hours to complete, centers on acquisition planning, contract formation and contract administration.

Messick said the university is developing instructor-led classes for contract specialists, to be conducted online and in real time, to supplement the self-paced courseware.

In addition to procurement classes, the university provides online campus space to agencies that want to set up procurement seminars tailored to their own acquisition procedures.

Online U. charges $12,100 to agencies for a one-time setup fee and $7,200 annually for help desk, maintenance and updates to seminar sites. Visitors can tour the campus at www.faionline.com. Prospective students who want to browse the courseware can log on and use 'guest' as their password.

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